In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Identity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Sex
  • Trans*
  • Sexuality
  • Ethnicity
  • Ability
  • Class

Philosophy Social Identity
Mari Mikkola
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0392


Many political struggles for emancipation seemingly presuppose identity politics: a form of political mobilization based on social kind membership, where some shared experiences or traits delimit “belonging.” This is because social and political philosophers typically hold that contemporary injustices such as oppression and discrimination are structural, systematic, and social. In being structural, they have their causes in norms, habits, symbolic meanings, and assumptions unquestionably embedded in and underlying institutional and social arrangements. In being systematic, social injustices exist throughout a society and usually over a period of time, so that societal institutions come to form interlocking webs that maintain and reinforce injustices experienced. And in being social, contemporary injustices are grounded in socially salient self- and other-directed identifications, where such identifications typically fix social group membership. Social injustice is not incidental and individual but targets members of certain groups due to their group membership: typically, due to individuals’ gender/sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, ability, and/or class. Elucidating the nature of social identities then appears to be necessary in order to understand contemporary social injustices. We may face oppression due to membership in a collective, where others impose such membership upon us; or we may personally and voluntarily identify with an oppressed collective for which we seek political recognition. Thus, the expression “social identity” can denote either a group-based or an individual phenomenon, which needs disambiguating. We can ask on what basis are, for example, all women as women bound together (what constitutes their collective kind identity)? Or is gender identity essential to a person qua that person (are certain social classifications part of our individual identity)? Additionally, there are different modes by which social identifications and identity formation can take place: this may be voluntary (we choose certain identifications), or ascriptive (certain identities are attributed to us by others). However, elucidating particular social identities is riddled with difficulties, and this has generated various so-called identity crises. Identity politics presumes the existence of social kinds founded on some category-wide common traits or experiences. But as many have argued, no such transcultural/transhistorical commonality exists because our axes of identity (gender, race, ability, class) are intertwined and inseparable. In an attempt to unlock this impasse, the past few decades have witnessed lively philosophical debates about the nature of social identity more generally, and about the character of particular social identities.

General Overviews

Although social philosophers have discussed many questions pertaining to socially salient identities over the years, general overviews on the topic are sparse. Most overviews pertain to merely some social identities (e.g., to race and gender), or they offer overviews of particular identity markers. To date, there is no single textbook that provides a comprehensive overview of the topic. Heyes 2014 provides a helpful introduction to identity politics, which crucially makes use of social identity categories. Weir 2013 discusses identity politics and how it is connected to relations of power and freedom in more depth. Stone 2007 offers a good starting point for those unfamiliar with the topic, although the book was written as a general introduction to feminist philosophy; Warnke 2008 provides a more advanced introduction. Emcke 2000 is another more elaborated and opinionated introduction to collective identities, but the text is available only in German. Stein 2001 considers sex/gender and sexual orientation in particular, although the book also contains helpful discussions about more general methodological issues pertaining to analyzing social identities. Glasgow 2009 offers an introduction to philosophical debates concerning race. Battersby 1998, Emcke 2000, Stone 2007, and Warnke 2008 notably discuss social identities and identifications from both systematic and continental perspectives.

  • Battersby, Christine. The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity. London: Routledge, 1998.

    This monograph focuses on the notions of identity and gender: in particular on how identity is constructed through birthing. Although systematic in method, the book draws heavily on post-Kantian Continental philosophy. A more challenging work, not particularly suitable for beginners.

  • Emcke, Carolin. Kollektive Identitäten. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2000.

    The monograph provides an accessible and useful introduction to the topic. Covers systematic, historical, and Continental approaches to social collectives in general. Only available in German.

  • Glasgow, Joshua. A Theory of Race. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    A relatively short but rich introduction to contemporary philosophical debates pertaining to race. Suitable for both beginners and for more advanced readership.

  • Heyes, Cressida. “Identity Politics.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.

    Recommended as a starting point for those unfamiliar with the relevant debates. Provides a clear and accessible introduction to this form of political organizing, which seemingly relies on social identity categories, and to some paradigm social identities (gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality).

  • Stein, Edward. The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    A thorough and sophisticated monograph that also provides an accessible introduction to philosophical debates pertaining to sexual orientation. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the topic.

  • Stone, Alison. An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007.

    Although written as a general textbook on feminist philosophy, this discusses many issues central to analyzing social identities: gender, sex, sexual difference, and essentialism. These topics are often discussed in an analytical manner, but Stone offers a nice methodological crossover discussing them from both systematic and continental perspectives.

  • Warnke, Georgia. After Identity: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Gender. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511490392

    Discusses social identity categories generally, though focusing on race, gender, sex, and sexuality. Contains insightful chapters on these identity categories and connects more theoretical discussions with practical political issues. Also notable in providing an interesting discussion that draws on both Continental and Anglo-American traditions.

  • Weir, Allison. Identities and Freedom: Feminist Theory Between Power and Connection. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199936861.001.0001

    Relatively short but rich monograph that discusses the paradox of identity politics: emancipatory political movements seemingly require a collective “we” that they represent; but such collective identities may “imprison” individuals in ways that hampers freedom and self-directed subject formation. Offers a novel alternative account of identity as connection.

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